May 2, 2017

In the popular imagination, recycling arose out of the modern environmental movement. Some associate recycling with efforts to to divert discards from landfills or with World War II scrap drives when the government mobilized resources for the war effort. But recycling’s history is both older and more complicated than either of those depictions.

Paul Revere recycled, though he did not use that word. British restrictions on colonial metal production compelled blacksmiths to melt down and refabricate old iron for their wares. Once the United States was independent, industrial concerns from paper mills to railroads sought out rags and old iron because using them was more affordable than mining or harvesting virgin material. The scrap recycling industry grew as the nation industrialized; by 1917, the domestic scrap iron and steel industry was estimated by journalist George Manlove to generate over a billion dollars in revenue annually. Recycling was an economic response to scarce or expensive raw materials, and it produced jobs for thousands of scavengers, peddlers, scrapyard owners, and brokers before World War II.[1]

The public collection efforts to recover recyclables have a more recent history. Wartime scrap drives represented the federal government’s desire to coordinate inputs to military production. The thousands of municipal collection programs in place across the United States have their roots in a fundamental shift in the economy that began in the mid-nineteenth century and came to a head by the end of the 1960s. An economy of mass production began designing goods and packaging meant to be quickly consumed, disposed of, and replaced. What Susan Strasser calls a pre-industrial “stewardship of objects” was replaced with deliberately disposable goods consumers were meant to purchase and discard repeatedly rather than mending and keeping.[2]

The systems of production that evolved over the twentieth century meant the volume and variety of materials discarded expanded. World War II’s mobilization of resources meant American manufacturers could mass-produce aluminum and plastics like never before; in the post-war era, these modern materials shaped everything from beer cans to toys to condiment packets. Discards at the sides of roads proliferated, and piles of post-consumer waste filled an ever-growing number of landfills across the country. Trash became conspicuous.

Manufacturers feared regulation of their products. Beverage manufacturers formed the trade association Keep America Beautiful in 1953 to shift the burdens of waste away from their members and on individual consumers and the municipalities that are tasked with handling solid waste. KAB has been successful in this effort. Instead of rewashable glass milk bottles, the norm for beverage distribution in the twenty-first century is a single-use container made of aluminum, PET, or paperstock. Consumers who discard this designed waste are called “litterbugs,” a term conditioned in children’s advertising by KAB for consumers to internalize the burdens of disposal.[3]

As the volume of discarded packaging mounted in landfills, municipalities developed curbside collection programs to divert some of the waste away from landfills and back into industrial production. The pickups and sorting cost time and money; by the 1990s, many municipalities partnered with experienced scrap recycling companies or waste disposal companies to meet the burden. Infrastructure to sort and process post-consumer recyclables evolved, including reverse vending machines and material reclamation facilities combining optical scanners, conveyor belts, and other technologies joining human labor in sorting streams of plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, and metals to return to industrial production. Despite these investments, the recycling rate for plastics remains mired under 15% and “mutant materials” (such as combined plastic and aluminum condiment packets) remain unrecycled because they are too complex and expensive to separate.[4]

Manufacturers today continue to value recycling as an affordable source of raw materials. Many also, in part due to Extended Producer Responsibility regulations in the European Union, and in part due to environmental ethics, have developed design practices to expand recycling. Design for disassembly allows processors to more easily separate materials. Voluntary Cradle-to-Cradle certification produces designs to maximize material return while minimizing toxins and energy consumption. Upcycling discards into goods of elevated value is increasing in popularity. Examples include Patagonia converting PET bottles into polar fleece, adidas harvesting plastic fishing nets from the world’s oceans to make new athletic shoes, and Herman Miller and Emeco producing luxury furniture from at least 75% recycled materials.[5]

These design initiatives bring hope but also caution. Aluminum and steel have the world’s highest recycling rates; in the United States, secondary aluminum has accounted for more than two-thirds of total domestic production in the twenty-first century. Yet as recycling programs have grown over the past fifty years, and as manufacturers have found ways to use recycled aluminum in everything from cans to furniture to guitars to the new Ford F-150 truck, global primary aluminum production has more than tripled. (Extraction grows even though recycling rates for aluminum exceed fifty percent worldwide. The recycling rates for plastics are far lower, as new production is usually cheaper than collecting and processing secondary materials.) If recycling’s goal is to keep discards out of landfills, diversion has succeeded. If, however, recycling’s goal is to reduce the damage industrial production and consumption have wrought on the environment, the history of recycling indicates this is an insufficient strategy. Policies to cap primary material production—such as those Paul Revere rebelled against in the British colonies almost 250 years ago—might prove more effective at protecting the Earth from the mounting disposability of industrial society.

Carl A. Zimring is associate professor of Sustainability Studies at the Pratt Institute. His books about the past and present of recycling include Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers University Press, 2005) and Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). For all things related to waste and garbage, consult the reference volume he edited with garbologist William L. Rathje, Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage (Sage, 2012). He tweets @CarlZimring.

[1] Carl A. Zimring, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

[2] Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999).

[3] Bartow J. Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014); Robert Friedel, “American Bottles: The Road to No Return,” Environmental History 19, no. 3 (2014): 505-527.

[4] Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005); Finn Arne Jørgensen, Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011); Samantha MacBride, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[5] William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002); Carl A. Zimring, Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).